By Thea Jourdan
PUBLISHED: 19:11 EST, 27 January 2014
A new diagnostic device based on an instrument used to check the ripeness of cheese can detect cirrhosis of the liver.
It does this earlier and with greater reliability than current tests, potentially saving thousands of lives.
Each year in England, around 12,000 people die from cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. A third of those deaths are caused by excessive drinking.
However, cirrhosis can also occur as a result of obesity and type 2 diabetes because of fat in the liver.
Most people are diagnosed in hospital using a combination of blood tests to check for enzymes released from damaged liver cells and CT scans, which show scarring and enlargement of the liver. However, by the time their condition is spotted, they are usually seriously ill.
Cirrhosis can stay hidden for five to 20 years before it shows any symptoms, such as weight loss, fatigue and jaundice.
The new test can spot the disease at a much earlier stage when the patient is deemed ‘at risk’ and before their liver has become badly scarred or hardened.
The non-invasive tool, known as a portable transient elastogram, consists of a pen-like wand and uses pulses of ultrasound to measure the liver’s elasticity.
It does so by measuring the sound waves as they bounce back from the liver and this information is used to calculate the stiffness of tissue.
Diseased livers become harder as scar tissue replaces normal liver cells. A similar technique is used to measure the firmness and maturity of cheese.
When tested on 12,000 patients in Nottingham who were considered to be at risk of developing cirrhosis, the new machine picked up 85 to 90 per cent of cases (the traditional blood tests spotted only 30 per cent of cases), increasing the detection rates of cirrhosis by 200 per cent.
Early detection meant that patients could be